Gladdening the Mind

Helping us cultivate equanimity, kindness, and compassion.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

I still marvel that I first met my beloved friend Polly when she was 97 years old. Since she lived to be 101, our friendship blossomed, deepened through many extraordinary conversations, many of which concerned finding meaning in life, spiritual questions, and how to make friends with death.

A nationally-known artist, Polly was blind and hearing impaired. She had every reason to be depressed by her circumstances but was one of the most upbeat, positive, and engaging people I’ve ever met.

Now an elder myself, I often reflect on what contributes to resiliency in later life. I wondered about Polly’s resilience. What was her secret? She was a lifelong Quaker, and so we talked about silence, quieting the mind/heart, and meditation—subjects about which she was insatiably curious. As I was a meditation teacher and had written about aging, she would ask me about my training and experience. 

For all of us who have done psychological work or explored some spiritual tradition, we invariably need to understand the complexities of our own mind—that which creates our experience of reality, that which colors and creates our life, moment by moment. We talked about how easily our minds can slip into states of distraction, fragmentation, or even overwhelm. How do we handle those mental/emotional challenges, she would ask.

We know that meditation practice is invaluable in calming and steadying these forces. Wisdom teachings encourage us to train the mind—to cultivate equanimity, kindness, and compassion—which is the natural trajectory of our practice, yet there are many steps along the way.

Sometimes a simple phrase like "gladdening the mind" will deepen our awareness toward negative mind states that we might not have noticed or which have taken over in surreptitious ways. For example, we notice those moments when the mind "sinks" with a vague darkening of mood or falls into some afflictive pattern. We remember the somewhat unusual word "gladdening," and our heightened awareness catches the mental pattern before it proliferates.

There are several approaches we can use with these subtle movements of mind. While poised on the tightrope of consciousness—which is where we are at every moment—we can ask, "Where is the observer now?" Or we can remember the inner smile, a subtle letting go of tension around the mouth that softens the tightening that comes with afflictive mind states.

Here are three more time-honored ways of gladdening the mind:

1. The practice of gratitude: Recall something for which you are grateful, and let those feelings expand. Take your time, be aware of your breath, and bring awareness to the heart center, noticing any feelings of warmth or expansiveness.

2. The practice of serving, or any act of kindness however small, has the same gladdening, heart-opening effect. Reach out to someone in need, offer help to a stranger, converse with the check-out person at the store.

3. Savor the blessings in your life, whatever losses you may also have experienced. Start the day by savoring the light, by thanking the body even with its aches and pains, and throughout the day, savor the little things of life—a cup of tea, someone's smile, a raindrop on a leaf, a beautiful cloud formation.

With any of these ways to gladden the mind, neuroscientists remind us that to make these practices effective, we need to hold any positive thought or intention for at least thirty seconds and experience it in the body. The more intention and energy we bring to the intention, the stronger the results.

One of the gifts of meditation is that our awareness becomes ever subtler, ever more refined. We catch these fluctuations of mood and mind and bring the healing power of awareness to our difficult emotions while cultivating the quiet joy that underlies it all. As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote:

I wish I could show you

When you are lonely or in darkness,

The astonishing light

Of your own Being!